Economic Sophisms/Chapter 20

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Economic Sophisms by Frédéric Bastiat
Chapter 20
Human Labour, National Labour


 

XX.

 

HUMAN LABOUR, NATIONAL LABOUR.

MACHINE-BREAKING—prohibition of foreign commodities—are two acts founded on the same doctrine.

We see men who clap their hands when a great invention is introduced, and who nevertheless adhere to the protectionist régime. Such men are grossly inconsistent!

With what do they reproach free trade? With encouraging the production by foreigners, more skilled or more favourably situated than we are, of commodities which, but for free trade, would be produced at home. In a word, they accuse free trade of being injurious to national labour?

For the same reason, should they not reproach machinery with accomplishing by natural agents what otherwise would have been done by manual labour, and so of being injurious to human labour?

The foreign workman, better and more favourably situated than the home workman for the production of certain commodities, is, with reference to the latter, a veritable economic madbine, crushing him by competition. In like manner, machinery, which executes a piece of work at a lower price than a certain number of men could do by manual labour, is, in relation to these manual labourers, a veritable foreign competitor, who paralyzes them by his rivalry.

If, then, it is politic to protect national labour against the competition oi foreign labour, it is not less so to protect human labour against the rivalry of mechanical labour.

Thus, every adherent of the régime of protection, if he is logical, should not content himself with prohibiting foreign products; he should proscribe also the products of the shuttle and the plough.

And this is the reason why I like better the logic of those men who, declaiming against the invasion of foreign merchandise, declaim likewise against the exccess of production which is due to the inventive power of the human mind.

Such a man is M. de Saint-Chamans. "One of the strongest arguments against free trade," he says, "is the too extensive employment of machinery, for many workmen are deprived of employment, either by foreign competition, which lowers the price of our manufactured goods, or by instruments which take the place of men in our workshops."[1]

M. de Saint-Chamans has seen clearly the analogy, or, we should rather say, the identity, which obtains between imports and machinery. For this reason, he proscribes both; and it is really agreeable to have to do with such intrepid reasoners, who, even when wrong, carry out their argument to its logical conclusion.

But here is the mess in which they land themselves.

If it be true, a priori, that the domain of invention and that of labour cannot be simultaneously extended but at each other's expense, it must be in those countries where machinery most abounds—in Lancashire, for example—that we should expect to find the fewest workmen. And if, on the other hand, we establish the fact that mechanical power and manual labour coexist, and to a greater extent, among rich nations than among savages, the conclusion is inevitable, that these two powers do not exclude each other.

I cannot convince myself how any thinking being can enjoy a moment's repose in presence of the following dilemma:

Either the inventions of man are not injurious to manual labour, as general facts attest, since there are more of both in England and France than among the Hurons and Cherokees, and that being so, I am on a wrong road, though I know neither where nor when I missed my way; at all events, I see I am wrong, and I should commit the crime of lese-humanity were I to introduce my error into the legislation of my country.

Or else, the discoveries of the human mind limit the amount of manual labour, as special facts appear to indicate; for I see every day some machine or other superseding twenty or a hundred workmen; and then I am forced to acknowledge a flagrant, eternal, and incurable antithesis between the intellectual and physical powers of man—between his progress and his present wellbeing; and in these circumstances I am forced to say that the Creator of man might have endowed him with reason, or with physical strength, with moral force, or with brute force; but that He mocked him by conferring on him, at the same time, faculties which are destructive of each other.

The difficulty is pressing and puzzling; but you contrive to find your way out of it by adopting the strange apophthegm:

In political economy, there are no absolute principles.

In plain language, this means:

"I know not whether it be true or false; I am ignorant of what constitutes general good or evil. I give myself no trouble about that. The immediate effect of each measure upon my own personal interest is the only law which I can consent to recognise."

There are no principles! You might as well say there are no facts; for principles are merely formulas which classify such facts as are well established.

Machinery, and the importation of foreign commodities, certainly produce effects. These effects may be good or bad; on that there may be difference of opinion. But whatever view we take of them, it is reduced to a formula, by one of these two principles: Machinery is a good; or, machinery is an evil: Importations of foreign produce are beneficial; or, such importations are hurtful. But to assert that there are no principles, certainly exhibits the lowest degree of abasement to which the human mind can descend; and I confess that I blush for my country when I hear such a monstrous heresy proclaimed in the French Chambers, and with their assent; that is to say, in the face and with the assent of the élite of our fellow-citizens; and this in order to justify their imposing laws upon us in total ignorance of the real state of the case.

But then I am told to destroy the sophism, by proving that machinery is not hurtful to human labour, nor the importation of foreign products to national labour.

A work like the present cannot well include very full or complete demonstrations. My design is rather to state difficulties than to resolve them; to excite reflection rather than to satisfy doubts. No conviction makes so lasting an impression on the mind as that which it works out for itself. But I shall endeavour nevertheless to put the reader on the right road.


  1. Du Système d'Impôts, p. 438.